We are delighted The Good Schools Guide has recently published its review of Magdalen College School.
Famous for its unbiased and candid reviews, the guide interviews each school’s Head, speaks to staff, pupils and parents to ensure a well-rounded review.
Read it here:
Since 2016, Helen Pike MA (40s). Previously head of South Hampstead High. Born in Preston, state educated and was first in her family to go to university. After studying modern history at Christ Church, Oxford she looked set for an academic career, but teaching claimed her for its own while she was on a master’s scholarship at Ann Arbor, University of Michigan. After a short stint lecturing at the University of Warwick she went first to Westminster School where she taught history, thence to City of London Boys (dep head of sixth form) St Paul’s where she was head of politics, and RGS Guildford (deputy head). That’s a high-octane progression through some of the country’s most academically demanding schools.
Credits ‘inspirational’ history and English A level teachers at her sixth form college and says she was torn between these subjects when deciding what to study at university. History won, but she also took a master’s (yes, this master has three master’s degrees) in creative writing at Birkbeck and in 2011 published a novel, The Harlot’s Press, about a female printer in early 19th century London. Says her creative energies are currently deployed in speech writing but could well return to fiction when time allows.
Some may have been concerned that the appointment of a woman as master would change the character of the school or spell the end for one or two of its benign and much-loved eccentricities (and eccentrics). They needn’t have worried. Staff traditionally put on a mini Christmas panto at the end of term and several pupils mentioned how brilliant it was when the master unexpectedly burst into song. Parents seem pretty positive, ‘approachable’ seemed to be their adjective of choice, ‘I feel I could go in and speak to her if necessary’.
Razor sharp, opinionated (we love heads who tell it like it is) with a keen sense of humour and the absurd. Not an iconoclast – she is a historian after all – she describes the school as ‘conservative with a small c’, adding, ‘we have a very settled culture of expectation and we know what we’re doing.’ Her modus operandi is to ‘analyse carefully and be bold’ and now that the latest building project is finished she is gearing up for a huge drive for bursaries. When she describes herself as ‘messianic about the transformative power of education’, you know she really means it.
"Razor sharp, opinionated (we love heads who tell it like it is) with a keen sense of humour and the absurd"The Good School's Guide on The Master, Helen Pike
Almost uniquely among the senior school heads we’ve met, most of whom say regretfully that they simply don’t have time to do any formal teaching, she has timetabled lessons with A level historians, introducing lower sixth pupils to political thinkers from Hobbes to Marx. She keeps an open-door policy for all pupils and meets regularly with prefects and sixth form girls (one of whom described her as ‘a blast’). Her partner is Professor George Garnett, the sometime senior proctor at Oxford and she has three stepchildren, two of whom studied at MCS. She’s a keen runner and recently completed the Oxford half marathon. Favourite book when growing up was Jane Eyre ‘all of Charlotte Bronte’s novels are about education in some form or another.’
We found the master delightful company, wearing a historic role respectfully, but with a colourful flash of her own stylish insouciance. It’s hard to imagine her being fazed by anyone or anything, but she says she is ‘in awe’ of the multiple talents of her staff, describing the MCS common room as ‘the best.’ It seems to us that she has found her people.
Head of junior school since 2012, Tim Skipwith, previously head of the middle school (years 9-11), a biology teacher who has been at the school for over a decade. He is ‘a wonderful guide for parents on the 11+ process’ and reputedly very hot on pastoral issues.
Not much scope for subject by subject analysis when it comes to exam results. Even for such an academically selective school they’re seriously impressive: 96 per cent A*-A/9-7 at I/GCSE in 2018 and 84 per cent A*/A at A level. The boys who join at 11 are by definition able but according to the master, ‘we make them cleverer’ (a claim backed up by ‘statistically significant value-added data’).
The challenge at I/GCSE is to ‘keep the boys’ interest’ and make the curriculum ‘less sloggy’. All do ten subjects including three separate sciences and a modern foreign language (French, Spanish or German). Greek, Latin and computing are also options, as are art and music (no drama or DT). Twenty A level subjects offered in the sixth form, that’s only four more than at I/GCSE, the newbies being politics, philosophy, economics and further maths. Pre-U for English, history, French, German and Spanish. School very much not at home to ‘ologies’, as the rather crisp comment on the website makes clear: ‘Subjects which might count against an applicant to top universities are generally avoided.’ Parents tell us that pupils are advised to ‘choose A level subjects they really enjoy’ rather than the ones that fit a particular mould, but then again, they can’t go far wrong with what’s on offer. Maths and further maths are overwhelmingly the most popular choice, followed by sciences, economics, English and history.
All study at least four A level subjects in the lower sixth and around half continue with four (or more) throughout. In addition, all lower Sixth pupils undertake a personal research project known as Waynflete Studies – a bit like the EPQ but with extra added Oxford. Pupils choose a topic in consultation with teachers and attend lectures and seminars, they are then matched with an academic from the university for paired or individual tutorials. The programme culminates in the Waynflete Studies evening at which pupils present their research to fellow students, staff and parents. Projects are marked internally and then go before an external panel who choose the winners for each subject category. This is an invaluable, not to say unique opportunity for pupils to enhance their subject knowledge and fantastic preparation for university interviews – it must surely have a bearing on MCS’ consistently impressive Oxbridge success rate.
We sat in on lessons, first was sixth form politics where different voting systems were being investigated. Two pupils presented their research to the rest of the class, answering questions and explaining complex details – all very serious. Then, by way of contrast, it was second year (year 8) Latin where a large class, most dressed in hockey kit, rattled off nominative, accusative and gerunds with enthusiasm. No call here for the gentle narratives of the Cambridge Latin Course, this was old school, verb learning, Kennedy’s Latin Primer territory – and the boys were loving it. Pretty impressive, especially since many of them only started to learn Latin when they arrived at the school.
Yes, the pace is fast and expectations are high, but academic success is not at the cost of fun and interesting digressions. Very little setting, just ‘loosely’ for French and maths from year 8. Lots of young teachers as well as what were described to us as ‘legendary dinosaurs’, and all seem to have more than several strings to their bows (‘polymath’ may as well be on the job description). Parents marvelled at how well their children were known as individuals and how alert staff were to even subtle changes in mood or performance – ‘they pick things up so quickly’. Subject clinics are readily available and there’s no stigma attached to those who need help of any kind. Junior school boys are screened for SEN in year 5 and there is one-to-one and specialist support available for senior school pupils. ‘You don’t have to be the brightest’, said one mother (hmmm, it’s all relative), ‘they just want pupils to do the best they can – not for the reputation of the school, but for themselves.’
Girls who join the sixth form, mainly from nearby single-sex schools (much to the latter’s great regret), notice a culture change as well as an increase in pressure. ‘The philosophy seems to be to keep us as busy as possible, there aren’t nearly as many private study periods as you get at my old school.’
Games, options, the arts
We lost count of the number of times pupils, parents and staff told us, ‘actually MCS is a really sporty school’ or words to that effect. Do we think they protest too much? They’re certainly fielding strong opposition to those who still believe you can’t be clever and sporty. Tennis (current Year 11-13 students national champions), cricket, hockey, football and rugby have all ‘really come up’. City centre site lacks the acres of pitches enjoyed by rivals, but then how many schools have their games fields and pavilion on an island? Magdalen’s School Field sits in the middle of the Cherwell, connected by photogenic ‘willow pattern’ style bridges which feature heavily in marketing material. Good use is made of adjacent university facilities including swimming pool and the track where Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. While having a river running through your grounds appears not to guarantee rowing success, sailing is a real strength and MCS has won the National Schools Team Racing Championships for six out of the last nine years. Master told us that over 80 per cent of pupils get to represent the school in one sport or another: ‘we’re in to win’ and the Saturday match programme is ‘huge’. Everyone agrees that sport is now taken much more seriously, but as one parent put it, ‘sport has its place, but it doesn’t rule.’ Unique to the school is the game of Kingball, it’s derived from fives but the rules are highly complex, changing with each new influx of boys.
The school was founded in part to educate the choristers of Magdalen College Chapel, and 16 boys from the school sing at daily services in a tradition unbroken since 1480, crossing under Magdalen Bridge via a special tunnel to bypass the traffic. They also sing from the tower in the city’s famous May Day celebrations, tour the world and make recordings, including the sound track to the BBC’s Blue Planet series. The choral foundation keeps music at the heart of MCS and there over 60 concerts a year featuring choirs (including a parents’ choir), small and large instrumental ensembles, three orchestras, two jazz bands and a samba group. Ambitious whole school productions such as Orff’s Carmina Burana are staged at the Sheldonian Theatre.
Drama may not be on the curriculum but that doesn’t stop it from being enthusiastically pursued in after school clubs, whole school productions and house plays – as well as an annual jaunt to the Edinburgh Fringe. Dramatic highlights include open air Shakespeare on the school’s island (villains may end up in the water) and performing at the Pegasus Theatre and Oxford Playhouse, with whom the school shares a resident Director and Producer.
Tremendous selection of lunch time and after school clubs runs from anime to Warhammer by way of bridge, DT, coding, comic book illustration, Lego and debating. The aim is for pupils to have fun and enjoy school life, though one parent thought younger boys in particular sometimes struggled to fit eating into these busy lunchtimes and felt school could be more vigilant about this. It’s one reason that lunch is served from 11am.
‘Huge’ programme of outreach – coordinated by deputy head of educational development – a post created by the master shortly after she arrived. Includes helping local sixth formers with university admission (especially medical school) and homework clubs for secondary schools. All lower sixth formers do an afternoon of community service every week and some opt for extra on Saturdays. Oxford Festival of the Arts was founded by MCS in 2008 and is a highlight of the year. Local schools, the university and community groups collaborate with arts professionals in a programme of music, theatre, literature and film events. More than 100 performances, lectures and workshops attract over 23,000 visitors to venues all over the city.
Background and atmosphere
Established in 1480 as part of Magdalen College by William Waynflete, bishop of Winchester, Lord Chancellor of England and also school master – he was the second headmaster of Winchester College and possibly also the first head of Eton. Waynflete came from relatively humble origins and entered the University of Oxford from one of the town’s grammar schools. He founded his school to offer similar opportunities not only for the boy choristers who sang in the college chapel, but also for able boys from the town.
The school occupied various parts of the college, finally moving over Magdalen Bridge to its present site on the Plain in the late 19th century. No grand entrance, an awkward turn off a busy roundabout at the bottom of the Iffley Road takes one to a familiar mix of school architecture from the last 100 years – some parts wearing better than others. The rather charming 1920s bungalow classrooms along Cowley Place which used to be the sixth form common room are now rehearsal rooms named after one of the school’s former pupils, Ivor Novello; junior school is across in School House (1893). New Building (2008) still looks very smart but no longer lives up to its name since the recent arrival of the Richard Record Sixth Form Centre (named after a former pupil) with ‘quiet’ and ‘silent’ study rooms, a cafe and lots of social space. The master’s offices are also here, on the top floor with a tremendous view out over School Field to spires beyond. Tremendous yes, but temporary – St Hilda’s College, the junior school’s immediate neighbour, has demolished one of its buildings but construction is underway. As the master pointed out, with rather pleasing symmetry the new principal of this former women’s college is, for the first time in its history, a chap. He is erecting a tower.
Pastoral care, well-being and discipline
School very proud of its pastoral care and rightly so according to parents, ‘they know the pupils so well – not only how they perform academically but also what makes them tick, what their interests are.’ It can be an intense atmosphere, especially for the younger boys, and parents say staff are watchful in case things get too much. There’s a social club ‘with very good cake’ at lunchtime to which new boys who ‘aren’t quite ready to brave the playground’ are gently directed. Sometimes all that’s necessary is a few quiet moments stroking the master’s rescue dog, a beautiful golden retriever cross who tones perfectly with the pale wooden surfaces of her office and, rather spookily, arrived with the name of Lily (MCS motto is ‘Sicut Lilium’). Three full-time matrons care for pupils, including triage from a mental health lead practitioner who liaises with two counsellors.
Interestingly, pupils are allocated to one of six houses according to where they live. Some travel in by train or bus from quite far so this is a great way of making friends who share the same journey. New boys are paired with buddies from the year above, and sixth form mentors are on hand. A mother told us, ‘my son and his buddy were chalk and cheese, but they got on brilliantly. There are lots of characters in this school, no one type, that makes it very tolerant of difference.’ Other parents said much the same, ‘there’s no dominant, cool set – it’s fine to be small and weedy.’ The 90-100 or so girls who join the sixth form seem to do so with few problems – we imagine school is as careful at picking the ‘right’ candidates for this end of the school as it is with the younger boys. Sixth form described to us as ‘very sociable – they like to have fun.’
Detentions tend to be for ‘cheek or talking too much’ and ‘leaving bags around’. In the case of the latter crime this doesn’t seem to be a successful deterrent, there were bags everywhere – decorating the base of columns outside in a way we’re sure the architect did not intend – and strewn about hallways. Teachers conscientiously move them to one side as they walk past, muttering about the bag problem. There are plenty of lockers – we could just about make them out through the abandoned bags.
Food is ‘amazing’ according to one of our sixth form guides. She thought it was better than what she’d had to eat at the Cambridge college which had just offered her a place! It was only 11am when we passed the dining room but it was full of boys (sixth form have their own café) tucking in to fish and chips. ‘Some of them get to school pretty early’ we were told. There’s also a tuck shop that was just about managing to keep a ravenous crowd supplied with toasted sandwiches.
Pupils and parents
There is undoubtedly a certain cachet attached to one’s son or daughter getting a place at MCS, but it’s intellectual, rather than social. One mother nailed the demographic thus: it’s not the ‘kind of school where people dress up for parents’ evening’. Another said, ‘it’s not snooty, people from all backgrounds fit in.’ Such is the pull of an MCS education that pupils travel in from as far as Newbury and even Northamptonshire and some families will move house if their son or daughter gets a place. Fairly typical Oxford mix of lawyers and medics, usually with both parents working; not as many dons as before – fees are out of the reach of many academics these days. It was suggested to us that there is a larger than average proportion of only children at MCS – interesting if true. Former pupils, known as Old Waynfletes (OWs), include St Thomas More, William Tyndale, John Foxe (as in Foxe’s Martyrs), Ivor Novello, the Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, Misha Glenny, Ben Goldacre, Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt and Noel Chavasse VC & Bar, the most highly decorated soldier in British history.
Two-class entry to junior school from year 3 upwards. At 7+ entrance is by maths and English papers plus a half day of group activities. ‘Attention is paid to each child’s co-operation, enthusiasm, self-discipline and ability to concentrate.’ At 8+ and 9+ by maths, English and verbal reasoning papers plus interview. Auditions for choristers in October and January. Also run pre-assessments giving feedback on suitability. Junior school pupils all take the same 11+ exam as outside applicants to the senior school (almost all pass). Parents assured us that tutoring isn’t necessary for boys applying from state primary schools. Around 50-60 places each year for girls in the sixth form, minimum of six A*/8-9 at GCSE required although reality is that nearly all candidates will far exceed this.
A few (perhaps 3-5 per cent) leave after GCSEs, mostly ‘for financial reasons’ or to study A levels not offered by the school. Persistent rumours that pupils who underperform at GCSE are kicked out were firmly quashed by the Master: ‘We absolutely do not cull.’ Forty-four to Oxford and Cambridge in 2018, plus 27 medics. Nearly all to top universities, including Bristol, Exeter, UCL, Durham, Edinburgh. Others off to Harvard, Berkley and ESCP Europe business school in 2018. Sciences marginally more popular than humanities, anything from aeronautical engineering to cognitive neuroscience. We were told that school does not ‘push’ Oxbridge and counsels pupils to choose universities based on the type of course they want to study.
Despite its ancient foundation and top-notch connections, this is not a rich school. Modest scholarships and exhibitions for academic and extracurricular can be topped up by means-tested bursaries – Master is on a mission to boost funds for these. Will generally try to help families who fall on hard times.
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